Numbers recently released from the Department of Labor show a 15.8 percent unemployment rate among black people, compared to 8.5 percent for whites.
Numbers recently released from the Department of Labor show a 15.8 percent unemployment rate among black people, compared to 8.5 percent for whites. iStockphoto
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.
In an ideal America, our president would have told us Tuesday night about his plan not only for fixing the jobs crisis but also for making it so that the crisis wasn't twice as bad for black people (15.8 percent unemployment versus 8.5 percent for whites).
But this isn't an ideal America, and he didn't. But then, who thought he would? The good news is that there is a way to make serious headway with the black unemployment problem, and it's getting more attention by the year.
The problem is that it doesn't sound very sexy in terms of name. "Prisoner re-entry programs" sounds pretty dull compared with "black agenda" and such. But much of the disproportion in black unemployment is because of how hard it is for ex-cons to get or keep work — when, as we all know, a grievous disproportion of ex-cons are black.
Newark, N.J., is an example of what feeds into the kind of statistic that we dream of Obama addressing in a speech. Each year about 1,500 unmarried, semiliterate drug addicts with no job skills come home from prison to Newark.
Am I stereotyping them? Well, OK, there is a certain diversity among them. Ten percent are not men. A smaller percentage are not black. There are those among them who read above the sixth-grade level. About one in five does not have a drug-addiction problem, and about one in 20 had some vocational training behind bars.
Three years after they get home, one in three will not have been arrested again, and two out of three will not be back behind bars. Now, extend this picture to all of America's big cities. About 650,000 ex-cons in total return home yearly.
Yet, thankfully, it is a myth that nobody will hire one. The ex-con needs people who know where to send him — say, an organization like Newark's Offender Aid and Restoration of Essex County (OAR), specializing in connecting ex-offenders with work. Get this: Finding people work is the least of their challenges. The White Rose Linen Supply Co. has been especially open to hiring ex-cons, while others get work as handymen, janitors, warehouse workers and truck drivers and in sanitation and customer service.
The immediate task at hand for an ex-offender is becoming able to work. Ex-cons often don't have a Social Security number — and forget about a birth certificate. As soon as an ex-offender comes in, OAR gets him those documents, plus a driver's license, if he qualifies. Nine in 10 clients need detoxification or rehabilitation.
The job part is then easy. Each week, OAR holds employment-counseling meetings, during which it drills clients on making eye contact, sitting up straight and asking questions, and then sends them off with three job leads.
So does Newark's Prisoners Resource Center (PRC), where every week, head case manager Omar Shabazz pulls no punches in his introductory talk to about 15 clients. " 'That's embarrassing for somebody to come into Burger King and see me flippin' burgers,' " he quotes someone as saying, and then answers: "What's embarrassing is that you dropped out of school in seventh grade!"
Project assistant Lynette Marsh addresses the siren lure of the corners head-on: "I know there's temptation — you come in here and we talk you out of it." She hands out a mock resume with the name and address, "Street Hustler: Nearest Street Corner Anywhere in Newark." Under "Other Skills": "Ain't Got None."
After two hours, Shabazz, who did 21 years behind bars himself, and Marsh have brought most of the audience around. Shabazz's biography gives his lectures an air of tough love that an outsider could barely hope to summon. "I'm no policeman, lawyer, parole officer — none of that. I'm a little of everything and also your brother."
This is addressing the black unemployment crisis one person at a time, in an America that isn't going to see a new New Deal. And lowly labor is not all an ex-con can expect for the rest of his life. Anthony Malpica came to New York and Philadelphia's Ready, Willing & Able program with more than 50 convictions. Street sweeping in a blue uniform was his first legal job — at 45.
He decided to become a locksmith apprentice — note, one of a great many jobs that do not require college — and today he's married, owns a home and is not even just an apprentice. He's a certified, bonded locksmith. Nor is he an exception. Fewer than 5 percent of Ready, Willing & Able's grads are arrested again after a year. And Ready, Willing & Able serves 1,000 people a day. It brings people straight from prison into group housing. It provides drug counseling.
Will Malpica ever be a rich man? No. But will most of us? Some respond to stories like his with a resentment that he is expected to "settle" for a working-class life — as if there is something ignoble in what is otherwise referred to affectionately as "good, honest work" and "working with your hands."
Programs like these are really exciting. They are part of a movement that was crested only over the past 10 years, before which ex-cons were typically dismissed by most philanthropists and municipal-government types as "jailbirds," undeserving of special attention. Articles like this one in the New York Times are not mere back-of-the-section fodder, but signs of the times.
Or they should be, and I think they can be. We just have to make an adjustment. Instead of asking why the White House doesn't do something like it did in the '30s and then in the '60s, when we know it won't, we can start supporting and making noise about something that already exists, is making a difference and could do even more.
To the sociology or African-American-studies grad student: Write a dissertation examining several prisoner re-entry programs across the country, assess their success rates and publish your dissertation as a book with a good, sexy title.
To journalists on the race beat: Take a peek at these places and celebrate them so that they can get more funding (and better websites).
To everybody: Know that we don't need the return of FDR or LBJ to make a difference in black unemployment. It could be that BHO never says anything interesting about that 15.8 percent-versus-8.5 percent gap, and miracles could happen anyway.